Dan Sandman

Archive for December, 2015|Monthly archive page

52: Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

In Autobiography, Books, Fiction on 25/12/2015 at 12:00 pm

Voyage in the DarkIt is 1914, Anna is nineteen years old and has moved from the West Indies to London. Like many young people, she is lost in the London without her family. Suffering from a broken heart, Anna turns to the  bottle for comfort. After one bad sexual transaction leads to another, our heroin begins to sink further and further into a deep depression. This book is about one young woman’s voyage from innocence to cold experience.

As Anna tells her story, we are given an intimate view of her private life. Anna allows us to peer into the bedsits she lives in, focussing our attention on her many fears, worries and memories. She is fearful of the cold climate, worried about money, and remembers her West Indian childhood. Such a personal account, based on autobiographical experience, restricts us to viewing Edwardian London from one narrow viewpoint.

Readers will be encouraged to empathise with Anna, and will wish for a happy ending to the book. Despite having many flaws, Anna is only nineteen years old, and her story begins when she is just eighteen. Anna is like so many young people struggling to find decent work today, whilst lining the pockets of dodgy landlords in the bedsits of Camden Town.

All she can do is write.

51: Three Sea Stories by Joseph Conrad

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 18/12/2015 at 12:00 pm

Three Sea Stories by Joseph ConradThe sea can provide the perfect backdrop for an adventure story, and Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924) published many works of fiction set within the isolated confines of a steamship. Many of his longer novels were printed as books, but Conrad also wrote a number of shorter works of around 30,000 words, published inside the influential magazines The Pall Mall Magazine (1893 – 1914) and Blackwell’s (1817 – 1980). Collected here in book form are three sea stories by the great grandfather of modernism himself. Each one can be enjoyed in one sitting, taking somewhere between three hours and three-and-a-half hours to complete.

Typhoon (1902) is a classic storm story with a twist, employing the frame within a frame technique used, to a lesser extent, in Samuel Coleridge’s excellent sea poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). The chilling Falk (later published, together with Typhoon in a hardback book, but written around the same time), is another sea story with a great twist. Finally, The Shadow Line (1917) tells of a young man who is thrust into his first captaincy, loosing his sense of youth along the way. All three stories focus on the difficult job of captaining of a steamship; showcase Conrad’s virtuosity as one of the most important writers we have; and would work as excellent introductions to his powerful, unsentimental fiction.

I do actively encourage you to try one of these Conrad sea stories. You will easily be able to find them for free on Project Gutenberg (the world’s oldest digital library), if you cannot find this Wordsworth Classics edition (which I bought for £2.49 new at The Book Warehouse in Camden Town — excellent shop!). Conrad should be read in long sittings of three hours plus, allowing the language to envelop your conciousness, like the way that the sea swishes over the side of  a steamship inside the eye of a storm. He should be devoured in long, heady gulps, not criticised for his Imperialist assumptions. Reading him from the point of view of someone living one hundred years later, with the benefit of hindsight, is like listening to Ride of the Valkyries (first written down in 1851) in 1951 whilst thinking about the German composer’s anti-Semitism.

An academic exercise.

50: Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

In Books, Fiction on 11/12/2015 at 12:00 pm

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean RhysJean Rhys was a modernist writer who is most famous for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a book that changed the way that people think about Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1947). Before Rhys became a writer she spent some time wandering the hotels of Paris, whilst scraping an unglamorous living where she could. In a confessional style, Good Morning Midnight (1939) works from Rhys’s autobiographical experiences.

Sophia (or is it Sasha – Rhys and naming!) Jansen searches for peace at the bottom of a bottle; but the bottle only numbs Jansen’s pain, as she runs away from having to deal with the root of her trauma. As the narrative moves through a series of unhelpful sexual relationships, as the protagonist drinks herself to a potential death, we are only ever given hints of what this trauma might be. The lack of detailed background information is both a strength and a weakness of the writing: on the one hand, the writer’s modernist style allows us to focus on the thoughts of one character; on the other hand, we are left searching for clues to what might have happened before these thoughts became fiction. Although this allows us to inhabit the conciousness of a fictionalised human being, it does not offer any comfortable resolution at the end of the story. Our only option, if we do indeed wish to imagine a back-story, is to create one from our own reading of the text.

My reading will be different from your reading, which in turn will be different from the readings of anyone else who comes across the text Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys in any form (e.g. book / radio play / newspaper review). This potentially confusing idea also applies to the characters inside the story and to the writer of the text herself, both of whom we are left to analyse and discuss. I might say, for example, that the protagonist Sophia Jansen is obviously an alcoholic, and then come to the conclusion that the modernist writer Jean Rhys was also an alcoholic because of x / y / z. But Sophia Jansen never states that she is an alcoholic during her narrative, and Jean Rhys may not have thought that she had a serious drink problem. To use the often stated lawyer analogy: I might find evidence for the prosecution, and you might find evidence for the defence. We then might hire a jury to decide whose view is the most valid, taking a democratic vote based on the evidence presented by all readers (e.g. me, you, Jansen, Rhys) across all interpreted sources (e.g. novel, website, newspaper, autobiography). Finally, despite our endeavours, we still would not have the comfortable resolution of which so many seek at the end of the story.

It is what it is.

49: Macbeth by William Shakespeare

In Books, Fiction, Horror, Literature, Plays on 04/12/2015 at 12:00 pm

Macbeth by William ShakespeareUnusually, the play begins with the three weird sisters, whose language is immediately unsettling. Nothing is to be trusted, even language itself is full of deceit: e.g. ‘Fair is foul’ and ‘the battle’s lost and won’. Before Macbeth enters the stage, King Duncan steeps praise upon his ‘valiant cousin’, later promoting Macbeth to the position of Thane of Cawdor. But like the Thane whom he usurps, and the language used by the sisters, Macbeth is not what he seems. We will know this soon after Macbeth and Banquo’s supernatural encounter, by listening to his soliloquies, which reveal his ‘vaulting ambition’. Even ahead of his Lady’s further encouragement towards ‘dreadful action’, Macbeth is thinking in terms of an ‘o’erleap’ of Malcolm the Prince of Cumberland. Just as Macbeth has supplanted the treacherous Cawdor, he will himself usurp the King and plot against Duncan’s rightful heirs. But whereas Cawdor was killed honourably in battle, Duncan will be dishonourably murdered by Macbeth’s dagger, attacked whilst asleep in the bed chamber of his host and hostess’s abode.

Lady Macbeth’s role is to secure Macbeth’s murderous action, which has already been set in motion by the weird sisters prophetic implanting of the idea itself. To achieve this, the Lady summons up her inner masculinity, ready to ‘unsex’ herself and to ‘bash’ the heads of her unborn children to become Queen. The Lady’s disturbed thoughts will eventually unravel into madness, although here at the beginning of the play she is still able to find ambitious reasons for murder within her thoughts and conversations. It is the cold ambition of ‘unkindness’ that she wishes to implant into her husbands power-hungry mind. Lady Macbeth becomes the co-plotter of this terrible deed, putting forward her dreadful plan to drug the guards wine so they are drunk asleep. According to the Lady’s premeditated direction, Macbeth will commit the murder itself, whilst she offers practical assistance; later going back to plant the daggers on the drowsy guards, whose clothes she will stain with the dead King’s blood.

As the play continues, and Macbeth has his comrade Banquo assassinated; at a publicly held banquet, the Lady attempts to control her husband’s shock and horror when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost. At this point of the action, Lady Macbeth appears the more sane of the two murderous co-plotters, attempting to explain her husband’s unusual behaviour as she clears the guests from the room. But by the time her husband is encouraged to commit a series of further murders by the the weird sisters, the Lady’s ability to cover up the crimes we the audience have seen committed will begin to diminish. Following the horrible slaughter of a rival family, Macbeth and his Lady begin to separate into two different forms of madness. Whereas cold blooded Macbeth has ‘almost forgot the taste of fears’, his Lady descends into a sleepwalking fear of her past actions, with the realization that ‘What’s done cannot be undone.’

In the end, Lady Macbeth is the more pitiable of the two.